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Immigrant Stories
in early American history

Teaching about early American immigrant experiences is certainly not one of the core standards for the younger grades. However, there are times when a book on this topic is just what is needed. If you have a new student in your class who is an immigrant, perhaps the entire class could benefit from learning that America is actually made up of immigrants and their descendants! Certain national holidays are also great times to squeeze one of these meaningful books into your busy curriculum. Actually, any day is a good day for a story about immigrant experiences, since the characters in these books embody hope, sacrifice and determination--character traits we'd like to see all our students embrace.

The following children's books are great resources for your immigration lesson plans. Some would make for great read alouds, others would be perfect for required student reading lists. Either way, we think this selection of books will help bring the immigrant experience to life for your students.

Note: The interest age of the book increases as you move down the page.

best picture books for immigration lesson plans

Tattered Sails
(family's 1653 journey to the
New World; cute bouncy text)

by Verla Kay
Kindergarten - 2nd grade

Peppe the Lamplighter
(a young immigrant boy
a job as a lamplighter)
by Elisa Bartone
2nd grade - 5th grade

Grandfather's Journey
(Caldecott winning account of
Say's grandfather's immigration)

by Allen Say
Preschool - 2nd grade

At Ellis Island
A History in Many Voices
(paired w/ beautiful paintings)
by Louise Peacock
2nd grade - 5th grade

All the Way to America
The Story of a Big Italian
and a Little Shovel
(about the
great grandfather)

by Dan Yaccarino
Kindergarten - 4th grade

Naming Liberty
(tells the story of a Russian
family emigrating to
America and the artist who
created the Statue of Liberty)

by Jane Yolen
1st grade - 3rd grade

When I First Came
to This Land

(a cumulative tale about a
recent immigrant cheerfully
facing adversity)

by Harriet Zieffert
Preschool - 2nd grade

A Picnic in October
(cute story about Tony,
who learns why his family
visits the Statue of Liberty
for a picnic each year)

by Eve Bunting
Kindergarten - 2nd grade

The Matchbox Diary
(keepsakes help a grandfather
share his immigration story)
by Paul Fleishman
2nd grade - 5th grade

When Jessie Came
Across the Sea

(beautifully illustrated story of
a girl's immigration in the 1910s)

2nd grade - 4th grade

Journey to Ellis Island
How My Father Came to
America--a true story)

by Carol Bierman
3rd grade - 8th grade

(story of immigration in
the 1880s, incl the Chinese
Exclusion Act)
by Milly Lee
3rd grade - 5th grade

chapter books about
early U.S. immigration stories

Below are some good chapter books sharing fictional or real immigrant stories from previous centuries. If any of these books seem like a good fit for you, click the link below.  Some of these connect to review pages by us and others connect directly to Amazon. Please note that if you purchase an item from Amazon, they give us a small referral fee. This helps pay for site hosting costs, thus allowing us to keep everything free for site visitors!

Sofia's Immigrant Diary  (My America series)
Sofia is a nine year old Italian girl who writes in a journal about her family's experiences
as they immigrate to America. There are three books
in this My America series that tell her story. 
(Grades 2-5)

American Girl -- Rebecca, 1914
Nine-year-old Rebecca Rubin and her family have recently immigrated to America from Russia
and live on the Lower East Side of New York City.
This six book series depicts Rebecca's life in her
new community, with
windows into her Jewish culture as well as the challenges and joys that
faced early immigrants at the turn of the century in America.

(Grades 3-5)

Under Copp's Hill
(History Mysteries series)

In 1908 Boston, many immigrants lived in tenements, including 11 year old Innie. When items start disappearing and Innie and her cousin see a strange light in the basement, they must figure out if its a ghost or a thief? The mystery will keep students reading...and learning about early immigrant life. 
(Grades 3-6)

The Journal of Finn Reardon: A Newsie, New York City (My Name is America series)
Finn and his family struggle to get by in their New York neighborhood. To earn money, Finn works as a newsie, but when the publishers raise the prices, the boys go on strike. "For fans of the series, this title will be a highlight." (SLJ) 
(Grades 4-7)

Letters from Rifka
Based on the author's own family history, this novel-through-letters makes a great classroom read aloud to accompany immigration lesson plans! The book follows a Ukranian family bound for America who must leave a daughter, Rifka, behind because she contracts ringworm. Will Rifka ever finally reunite with her family?
(Grades 4-7)

Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman
This Dear America series book tells the story of young Zipporah and her family, who have just recently arrived in New York City. In her journal, she writes about family struggles, their experiences at Ellis Island, and even about a friend who died in the Triangle Factory fire. (Grade 4-8)

Beyond the Western Sea Series
A family of poor Irish immigrants prepare to sail to the New World from England in the mid-19th century, along with a runaway son of an English lord. This series records their life before departure, their adventures on board, and their struggles in their new country. The Escape From Home (Book 1) tells the story of Patrick, 12, and his sister, Maura, as they prepare to reunite with their father in America alongside a new friend named Laurence.  Lord Kirkle's Money (Book 2)--The journey continues, from the ship to America to arrival in the New World. "Will keep most readers on the edge of their seats." (Publisher's Weekly)
(Grades 4-8)

Immigrant Kids
Written by award winning author Russell Freedman, this is "a refreshingly un-woeful introduction" (Kirkus Reviews) to the lives of immigrant children in turn of the century NYC.  Fascinating photos are paired with personal stories of work, play, school and family life. A very handy resource for immigration lesson plans.  (Grades 5-8)

The Journal of Otto Peltonen: A Finnish Immigrant
In this My Name is America book, Finnish-American teenager Otto describes his life at the turn of the century in a small Minnesota mining community, from his daily struggles to the miner's strike his father participates in and his mother's struggle for women's suffrage.  (Grades 5-10)

Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York 1880-1924
 A brilliant and moving history of early immigration in America. Transports young readers back to the turn of the century New York City tenements, balancing broad discussions with personal stories.
(Grades 5-12)

The King of Mulberry Street
Alone at Ellis Island, young Beniamino renames himself 'Dom' and survives alone on the streets until he finally meets a few friends and together they start a profitable sandwich business. "A richly imagined tale, based loosely on the author's family history." (SLJ)  (Grades 6-8)

Ashes of Roses
Sixteen year old Rose and her sister are alone in New York City and must make a way for themselves in this strange new city. Rose finds a job at a factory making blouses and soon is caught up in one of the country's worst industrial disasters. 
(Grades 6-9)

Enjoy the books!

Betsy, Cindy, and Virginia (the teachers/sisters behind this website)

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